On a bright and brisk Sunday afternoon in mid-October, Paul Bishop of the Dexter Area Historical Society did what a lot of people watching from the lawn of Gordon Hall would probably love to do for their own homes: he set fire to a symbolic copy of Gordon Hall’s mortgage. Not only had the historical society paid off the entire $900,000 debt, it had done so in just under nine years. The speakers gathered on the mansion’s broad portico represented the range of community forces that converged to save the historic property–local political figures, business leaders, teachers, bankers, schoolkids, philanthropists, history buffs, conservationists, and everyday citizens. An oft-repeated line was “It takes a village.”

This is only the most recent dramatic episode in Gordon Hall’s 173 years, a history peppered with heroes and villains, glory and neglect. Gordon Hall was the last home of Samuel Dexter–judge, lay preacher, real estate speculator, abolitionist, and founder of the village that bears his family name. This chapter began on November 17, 2000, when the University of Michigan, which had been given the estate by Samuel Dexter’s granddaughter, announced it would unload the property, a Greek revival mansion that lies a scant half-mile past the village on Island Lake Road.

The U-M’s tenure at Gordon Hall had been controversial almost from the moment the university acquired the property in 1950. Dexter’s granddaughter Katharine Dexter McCormick, a scientist and suffragist who had married into the wealthy McCormick family, had poured money into refurbishing her decrepit birthplace and expressed the hope that it would be used by the Dexter Women’s Study Club. But in 1950 her lawyers gave Gordon Hall to the university to help reduce taxes on her husband’s estate, and in January 1951 a U-M construction crew arrived to tear down a wing of the house and gut the interior.

McCormick was irate but helpless. “The fine classical interior has been destroyed,” wrote a heartsick Emil Lorch, the U-M architecture dean who had guided McCormick’s renovation. The building was remodeled into bland 1950s-style apartments for U-M faculty. At least the cellar’s original stone walls and unusual room configuration remain to remind visitors that this is said to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad, where the Dexters sheltered escaping slaves.

When the U-M finally decided to jettison the estate in 2000, Dexter community leaders beseeched it to “re-gift” Gordon Hall; after all, they had paid nothing for it and collected rent from it for decades. Instead, the university decided to put it out for bid. That decision, resoundingly unpopular in Dexter, was announced in April 2005. The bids were due that November 15. U-M valued the property at $2 million, a fairly fantastical sum even in those boom years.

Leaders of the historical society began a campaign to raise money. Signs appeared around town, such as: “Gordon Hall is an architectural wonder. Save it from the developers’ plunder.” Schoolchildren raised $4,600, including $800 from a kindergartners’ bake sale. But despite their valiant efforts, the DAHS had collected only about $37,000 by September 1.

“About that time,” says Bishop, “the United Methodist Retirement Communities came along and called me out to Chelsea and told us they wanted to buy the place. They wanted to give us the house and four acres, or something like that, and they wanted to put what ended up being the Cedars there”–the UMRC’s Cedars of Dexter retirement village.

But the plan included another element. “A private developer wanted to put some condos on the south side. That absolutely stunned me at the time–because it’s not just the house [that’s historic, it’s] the view from the front porch. That’s why Judge Dexter built this house here, because of the view. He could see his whole village from here.”

With only weeks to go before the bids were due, and with the development threat looming, the historical society team–then planning chair Paul Cousins, president Gil Campbell, and Bishop–crafted a counterproposal to UMRC’s. “The plan was they back us, and we would carve out the fifteen acres for them to build, and everyone would benefit,” says Bishop. That way, the retirement village would be the only development on the property.

The Cedars would later turn out to be the most controversial aspect of the project. “A lot of people didn’t like the split, and a lot of people were mad about the development and cutting down the forest,” says Paul Cousins. “But it happened, and life goes on.” In separate interviews, Cousins and Bishop both volunteered that the Cedars has been a good partner and neighbor.

The night before bids to the university were due, UMRC agreed to the historical society’s plan. The U-M accepted its $1.5 million offer and signed over the property in March 2006.

The historical society team knew that they couldn’t raise that amount from bake sales. The UMRC’s initial payment for twelve acres knocked $600,000 off the $1.5 million price, bringing the society’s cost down to $900,000 (the retirement community later bought another three acres for $50,000). The Village of Dexter pledged $200,000. Gordon Hall’s acreage lies in two townships, Scio and Webster, so Scio pledged $200,000 and Webster $50,000 to purchase development easements (after a later disagreement over conservation issues, Webster prorated its payment to $32,000). The Bob and Jan Lyons Foundation pledged $25,000 up front and another $100,000 over ten years, and there were further pledges of $25,000 or $50,000 from individuals and from companies like DAPCO Industries.

Based on these pledges, United Bank and Trust (now Old National) and the Bank of Ann Arbor issued the mortgage. In a model of community banking, the two allowed quarterly interest and annual principal payments (rather than monthly), to accommodate the flow of the pledges, most of which would be spread over five or ten years.

Even with the pledges and easy terms, the historical society needed fundraisers to help pay the mortgage and other costs. The interest alone ended up being more than $200,000, and–as anyone who buys a big, old house knows–there are always expenses–in this case, a $28,000 roof.

DAHS started with the rental income from the land itself–Carl Lesser, now eighty-nine, has farmed it since 1950. “He knows every stone that is out there,” says Bishop. Then the society began renting the mansion. It’s hosted two or three weddings a year, at $1,000 apiece. Several “Christmas at the Mansion” teas and tours raised a total of another $20,000 to $25,000. For the last two years it’s taken over the Dexter Daze raffle, raising $11,000 each year. And then there are the Civil War Days.

Civil War reenactors first took over the grounds in 2011. “We had the Lincoln Dinner. Abraham Lincoln and his lovely wife were there,” Bishop laughs. “Some guy out of Belleville came and played him. The Union soldiers were out there in the front. It was a great day. And the Cedars stepped up and provided all the food. We ended up making $19,000. We’ve done it four years now and raised $65,000. It’s all in conjunction with the sesquicentennial, the 150-year anniversary [of the war]. That’s over next year, in 2015. So we will have one more next June.”

By opening the estate for fundraisers, special events, and prearranged tours, the historical society is helping make Gordon Hall once again part of the fabric of the community. “People come out here and stand on the front porch and say, ‘I’ve got to have my wedding here.’ They come here to have their senior pictures taken,” says Bishop. “They couldn’t do that before we owned it. When the university owned it, they had a gate down there at the end of the driveway, and all you could do was look at it.”

Despite those successes, Bishop and DAHS president Bene Fusilier were impatient to pay off the debt. “We whittled it down with Civil War money and wedding money and this money and what have you,” says Bishop, “but it seemed like it was taking forever.” At the end of 2013, says Fusilier, “We still had a little over $200,000 to pay. As president, that was kind of mind-boggling to me. I just wanted it to move faster.”

Then Bene’s husband, Dr. Wally Fusilier, stepped forward with the “Fusilier challenge.” Fusilier, founder of Water Quality Investigators, pledged to match any funds donated in 2014 up to $100,000. (A modest man, Fusilier does not invite public attention; he didn’t even attend the mortgage burning.)

Paul Bishop says the Fusilier challenge gave “the board and DAHS new vigor” to seek donations. Scio paid off its remaining commitment early, says Bene Fusilier, “and then we got another $10,000 chunk, and that was it,” she says. “That was the end of August. On September 2, Wally wrote a matching check.” Bene Fusilier called Paul Bishop and said, “We’ve got enough money to do it.”

“Yeah, it was exciting,” says Bishop. “This is eight-and-a-half years almost on the money to pay off a $900,000 mortgage.”

The DAHS plans to restore Gordon Hall to the way it was in 1863, the year Judge Dexter died. The date has a nice, historic finality to it, and it also means they won’t replace the ugly tower addition Dexter’s widow, Millisent, built for her daughters after Sam’s death (and maybe the one thing U-M deserves thanks for knocking down). Plans call for renovating the interior and rebuilding the side ell the university demolished to make the property handicapped accessible and event friendly.

“The worst thing that happens with these places like this is that you don’t have any money to continue or to keep it going,” says Bishop. “The fact is that you don’t need a lot of money to do that, but you need money. And you can’t keep asking people for it.”

So while the historical society will continue to seek contributions, it will also look to income from events and from foundations. Bishop says the fact that it has paid off the mortgage, and that it raised money through events like the Civil War Days, has “given us great credibility, which should help with foundations and potential funders.”

The price tag for the phased renovation is somewhere in the range of $2.5 to $3 million. The plan is to start raising money next year. But for now, says Bishop, laughing, they’ll just “stand back and kind of crow.”